For a number of years, I have warned of the increased operational risk that results from leaving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the limbo of their conservatorships. “Operational risk” refers to risks that a company faces from things like poor procedures, systems, policies and employee supervision.
The Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency has released three reports that address aspects of Fannie and Freddie’s operational risk (along with that of the Federal Home Loan Bank System). The three reports are:
- FHFA Failed to Consistently Deliver Timely Reports of Examination to the Enterprise Boards and Obtain Written Responses from the Boards Regarding Remediation of Supervisory Concerns Identified in those Reports
- FHFA’s Failure to Consistently Identify Specific Deficiencies and Their Root Causes in Its Reports of Examination Constrains the Ability of the Enterprise Boards to Exercise Effective Oversight of Management’s Remediation of Supervisory Concerns
- FHFA’s Inconsistent Practices in Assessing Enterprise Remediation of Serious Deficiencies and Weaknesses in its Tracking Systems Limit the Effectiveness of FHFA’s Supervision of the Enterprises
The last of the three reports notes,
As the regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (collectively, the Enterprises) and of the Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBanks), the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) is tasked by statute to ensure that these entities operate safely and soundly so that they serve as a reliable source of liquidity and funding for housing finance and community investment. Examinations of its regulated entities are fundamental to FHFA’s supervisory mission.
FHFA has directed its Division of Enterprise Regulation (DER) to conduct supervisory activities of the Enterprises and its Division of Federal Home Loan Bank Regulation (DBR) to conduct these activities for the FHLBanks. When DER or DBR identifies a deficiency, it will classify the deficiency as a Matter Requiring Attention (MRA), a violation, or a recommendation. According to FHFA, MRAs are “the most serious supervisory matters.” FHFA requires the regulated entities to promptly remediate MRAs. Examiners are required to “check and document” the progress of MRA remediation.
In FHFA Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) 2016 Audit and Evaluation Plan, we explained our intent to focus our resources on programs and operations that pose the greatest financial, governance, and reputational risk to FHFA, the Enterprises, and the FHLBanks. One of the four areas we identified was FHFA’s rigor in its supervision of the Enterprises and the FHLBanks. According to FHFA, a key component of effective supervision is close oversight of efforts by an entity it regulates to correct identified supervisory concerns. This evaluation is one in a series of OIG reports that assess the robustness of FHFA’s policies, procedures, and practices governing its oversight of remediation of supervisory concerns by a regulated entity.
In this evaluation, we compared the MRA tracking systems used by two federal financial regulators and DBR to those used by the DER Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac examination teams. We found substantial weaknesses in DER’s tracking systems that limit significantly the utility of those systems as a tool to monitor the Enterprises’ efforts to remediate deficiencies giving rise to MRAs. We also reviewed a sample of open and closed MRAs issued to each Enterprise by DER to assess whether DER examiners performed independent assessments of the timeliness and adequacy of each Enterprise’s efforts to remediate the MRA. Our review found a lack of consistent independent analysis by DER examiners of the timeliness and adequacy of each Enterprise’s remedial efforts. (2)
My nightmare scenario is that Fannie and Freddie operations have slowly degraded as they have been left to linger in the limbo of conservatorship. This kind of degradation is not really observable from the outside and its effects are not known until something really bad happens. Maybe their hedging strategy is poorly designed, maybe their underwriting is allowed to become outdated, maybe too many employees lose their drive.
Eight years of conservatorship can do that to a company. When it happens, you can be sure that members of Congress will blame a whole host of people for this failure. But the blame will sit with Congress. Because Democrats and Republicans cannot come up with a reasonable compromise, we are left with two zombie organizations dominating our housing finance system.
Hopefully, I am wrong about this. Or maybe I am right about it but we dodge the bullet by some stroke of luck. But the longer we leave the two companies in this state, the more likely it is that things go bad and the taxpayer is left holding the bag once again.